HC Deb 06 February 1980 vol 978 cc702-12

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mather.]

1.40 am
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The fishing industry in Scotland faces many uncertainties. The cruel inflation of costs and the particular and justified anxiety about the impact on pier head prices brought about by uncontrolled imports has led to a mood of concern and of growing hope that the Government will intervene to restore stability and the prospect that prices will be adequate to the needs of the industry.

My purpose in this debate is to highlight the problem of a particular fishing community and remove an uncertainty with which it lies within the power of the Government to deal. The problem is the condition of the pier at the harbour of Lybster, in Caithness.

The problem that faces the fishing community in Lybster is acute, and not new. The present pier was constructed in 1950 and was expected to last only 25 years. It is now coming to the end of its natural life. The structure, of limited strength, was built with sheet piles, which are now seriously corroded, and the top of the jetty is rotting. What has been a haven for an important local fleet is threatened by the imminent collapse of the pier. That collapse could occur at any time.

The harbour trust, a private friendly society, approached the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland some time ago to seek assistance for a scheme to improve the pier and jetty facilities, which are essential for the provision of shelter and without which the fishing activity based on Lybster could not continue. The trust received a negative response from the Department.

I do not criticise, but I genuinely seek the Minister's help and advice on how to save this important fishing endeavour for the benefit not only of the fishermen but of the whole community in the parish of Latheron, which depends upon the prosperity of the fishing activity.

The record at the port, particularly in the past few years, is encouraging. It shows a remarkably steady growth in activity. The value of fish landings has increased each year. In 1976 the landings were worth £109,840; in 1977 they were worth £202,505; in 1978 they were worth £141,990; and last year, 1979, they were worth £299,800, of which £90,000 was due to a new scallop fishing industry.

The growth in the number of small boats using Lybster harbour has also been encouraging. About 15 local boats fish from the base, including two seine net vessels—"Restless Wave" and "Silver Cloud". A third vessel in the vicinity—the "Amethyst"—uses the haven, which is also used by other vessels. Few havens can be used by such vessels on the East Coast between Cromarty and Orkney.

The harbour trust's resources are limited. It has a modest income from harbour dues and the 2 per cent. value of landings paid by fishermen. The trust has spent almost all its income on running repairs. Clearly the harbour cannot face the cost of a major scheme of the type needed to save it. I ask for the Minister's help.

The east jetty is only 8feet wide and there is no room for vehicles to turn or come on to it. The trust has proposed that it should be widened to enable vehicles to go on to the hard-standing by widening the top to 16 feet. It suggests that the jetty should be pile-driven and concrete-filled, so that it can carry a crane to continue dredging and deepening the water around the jetty. The principal purpose of the jetty is to provide a safe haven and a landing for the fish.

I have said that the Department has so far proved rather negative in its response to my approach and that of the harbour trust. On 16 May last year the Department indicated in a letter to the secretary of the harbour trust that it would not be possible to make available funds of the amount that the trust was seeking. In the light of that letter I thought it right to pursue, with the other agencies with financial resources, the possiblity of seeking help elsewhere.

I first raised the matter with the Scottish Development Agency, but Sir William Gray, the then chairman, told me that there was little that the agency could do. In a letter to me of 7 September last year he said that because the harbour was in private ownership and was operating as a commercial venture the agency was precluded by its guidelines from offering assistance under its environmental programme.

Is it the Minister's understanding that the agency is so precluded from assisting the scheme? It seems to me that the benefits of the improvements that are sought would go beyond the assistance of the fishing industry alone. There is some tourist benefit to be gained, and some environmental benefit, if one conceives that in wide terms. But it may be that Sir William's appraisal was right, and that the agency is precluded from assisting.

I have also approached the Highlands and Islands Development Board, whose chairman has expressed great interest in, and concern about, the predicament that the trust faces. The board's engineers have examined the trust's proposals and have confirmed in large measure the expense of the operation and the difficulty of meeting the full bill.

However, in a letter to me of 26 June 1979, the chairman, Sir Kenneth Alexander, said: It would indeed be very unfortunate if this independent and vigorous harbour society were to be forced into a position where they could not carry out these repairs, and it would appear from the figures of fish landings given to us by Mrs Sinclair —the trust's secretary— that there has been a substantial increase in the volume and value of fish landed. The board's view appears to be that the scheme is too large for it to fund out of its own resources, save possibly with assistance under section 8 of its parent Act, which provides for assistance by way of grant and loan, if it can be shown that the trust is in a position to service a loan. Notwithstanding the growth in value of the landings, which has been marked over the past few years, there must be some doubt whether the trust would be in a position to finance a substantial loan charge. There remains the question whether it would be possible for the trust, with Government support, to approach the European Community for assistance—whether through the regional development fund or through the guidance section of FEOGA. I understand—though, of course, the scheme is not operative now—that resources of up to about 25 per cent. of the total capital cost might be made available through FEOGA to assist a fisheries harbour of this kind. Community funds were obtained for the not dissimilar needs of the harbour at John o' Groats, in Caithness, under the regional development fund, following a visit to Caithness by Commissioner George Thomson, as he then was.

I understand the difficulty faced by the Department and the Government when asked to fund a development of this kind. A number of harbours around our coasts are in need of attention, and I recognise that there are competing claims upon the limited resources. Nevertheless, I think that the Government will realise the importance of this harbour to the whole East Coast of Caithness. Indeed, it is important to fishermen fishing out of Helmsdale and points further south. The harbour plays a key part in the life of that community, which in some ways is suffering from both underemployment and emigration. There is no way in which it could sustain the shock of the collapse of this harbour and this fishing activity. It is because of the seriousness of the situation for the local community that I think it right to raise this matter in Parliament.

A number of small developments have taken place, under a number of different schemes, in harbours around the coasts of my constituency—at Caithness, at Dwarwick Head, at Phillips harbour and at John o' Groats. Some of these projects have been carried out under job creation schemes, some under European Community regional fund schemes, and so on. I think that it cannot be beyond the ingenuity of the Government to give a lead in the resolution of this difficulty. I believe that the time has come to stop passing the problem from agency to agency and to place the matter squarely in the Minister's lap to try to resolve what I think he will acknowledge is a genuine problem, and a genuinely important problem for the development needs of the community.

I hope that the Minister will not feel it right to pray in aid the sort of attitude which, I am afraid, has from time to time characterised some of the thinking of the Scottish Office on fisheries harbours. One can accept that limited funds lead to the need for priorities and queues, but what is not acceptable is to suggest that there is an alternative harbour that could be used in place of Lybster.

I remember that about a decade ago there was an argument—also affecting my constituency—about the competing claims of two harbours on the West Coast. The Scottish Office at that time was disposed to favour the claims of Lochinver over those of Kinlochbervie and to advise that the fishing could be conducted as well out of one port as out of the other. I did not believe that that was a wise view, and when the Scottish Office was prevailed upon to encourage the development of Kinlochbervie the wisdom of that was seen by the growth of local activity; not merely by the survival of the community, but by its development.

I believe that the Scottish Office should take a positive and encouraging view towards the development of Lybster harbour, because in its development lies the prospect of a revived community, and one with growing fishing activity near to the waters that are so fruitful. The fishermen are deeply worried about the collapse of this pier. I spoke to their chairman, and to the chairman of the harbour trust, Mr. George Carter, only last night, and he re-emphasised how seriously they view the situation. I know that the local regional councillor will be meeting officials of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries this week to reinforce the point that I am making and to seek the help of the Government. I hope that our pleas will not go unanswered.

1.59 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I listened with great interest to the remarks of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). Clearly, one recognises his genuine concern for the interests of this small harbour community in Lybster, in his constituency. I would not in any way dissent from the points that he has made about the state of the east jetty in the harbour. Clearly, that is not a matter that is in dispute. The only matter that is a cause of concern is whether, within the context of the funds that are available to the Scottish Office at present, this project, which inevitably would be expensive, is one that is deserving of the priority that would enable funds to be made available for it.

As the hon. Member will be aware, the Scottish Office is able, under the Fisheries Act 1955, to make grants and loans available for harbour purposes. Over the last five years, some £3 million has been made available in grants and some £700,000 in loans. The estimate for 1980–81 is that £1,150,000 will be available for grants and about £275,000 for loans. That is a significant amount. But when one takes into account the many demands and requirements of the harbours, both throughout the hon. Member's constituency and elsewhere in Scotland, it is clear that there have to be major priorities. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will remember that the previous Administration, who were also approached on this matter, felt unable to give the sort of assistance that he hoped to obtain.

Mr. Maclennan

I think that the Minister will acknowledge that the previous Administration certainly did not give a final negative to the harbour trust in this matter. Although the position was not very encouraging, my impression was that at least it was still under negotiation.

Mr. Rifkind

I would not dissent from that comment. It was a discouraging response, for very much the same sorts of reasons that unfortunately still seem to be relevant to the whole issue.

Clearly, Lybster is a very useful harbour, but it is very small—which I think the hon. Member would be the first to accept. I was interested to hear him say that he understood that 15 boats regularly used Lybster as their main base. My own information is that it is only seven boats—five under 40 ft. and only two larger boats. This is a matter that should be easy to check. It is certainly something that I shall have investigated in order that it can be clarified.

The hon. Member also spoke of the increase in the landings at the harbour. He referred to the landings of scallop over the last year. I understand, however, that this is not likely to be a recurrent theme, as the scallop beds have to be replenished, and this could naturally have an effect on landings over the next few years.

The east jetty, as the hon. Member indicated, was constructed in 1950, at the remarkably low cost of only £15,000, with the 95 per cent. grant and loan assistance from the Scottish Office. I agree entirely with the hon. Member's comments about the condition of the jetty. Indeed, there is no disagreement about the engineering desirability of carrying out substantial work on the jetty. It is recognised to be in poor shape, as the hon. Member indicated.

The difficulty is essentially one of cost. The harbour society's own engineers estimated about two years ago that their proposals would cost about £150,000, plus about £30,000 in fees. The Highlands and Islands Development Board's assessment last year was that a figure of between £275,000 and £300,000 would be more realistic. That, of course, was last year's figure.

These are clearly substantial figures, and it would be necessary to justify giving this project a very high degree of priority, given the limited overall funds that are available to the Department.

The hon. Member said that he was concerned that no argument should be put forward about alternative harbours. I must point out to him that the harbour at Wick, which is about 15 miles away, is already used, I understand, by at least two boats from Lybster, which use the Wick harbour on a regular basis. Therefore, I think that this cannot be considered to be an entirely irrelevant factor to take into account.

The Highlands and Islands Development Board has a wide social role and operates a grant and loan scheme under which certain harbour works can qualify. The board's policy is, however, to place emphasis on loans rather than grants. As the hon. Gentleman has indicated, it feels unable to help because the society, with the very low revenue that it has, would be unable to serve the sort of loans that might otherwise be made available to it. In the circumstances, the board, while also agreeing that the work on the jetty is desirable in principle, now feel that it has exhausted all possibilities of funding the proposed rehabilitation works.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether the SDA was correct to say that it was precluded from assisting. I cannot give him an answer this evening on that point but I will have it looked into and ensure that he is informed on the matter. Likewise, I shall look into the question whether FEOGA might still be able to make any form of assistance.

We have given careful consideration to the question of the European regional development fund. Clearly, that would be an attractive solution from every possible point of view. It would appear that assistance under the fund is unlikely to be obtained from that source. The emphasis that is placed by the relevant EEC regulation on a project's contribution to the general economic development of the area in which it is located makes it most unlikely that a project in a small fishing harbour would be a successful candidate, particularly where this involves the replacement of an existing facility. It would have to be demonstrated to the EEC Commission that the scheme was of strategic importance to the fishing industry as a whole or that it would generate a substantially higher level of economic activity in the area.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the grant made available by the EEC to John o'Groats harbour. In that case, it was possible to fulfil the stringent criteria laid down for applications under the fund. The Scottish Office would find it impossible to justify an application under these criteria for the present scheme.

The hon. Gentleman said that one reason why the extension of the pier was required was to assist in the further dredging of the entrance channel to the harbour. As we indicated to the harbour society in May 1977, the experts in the Scottish Office believe that in addition to the loose rock there is a section in the approach channel to the harbour extending a distance of approximately 30 yards, where the bed level is at least as high as the entrance to the harbour. This, together with the known spines of rock within the area being dredged means that continuation of the harbour society's work will not be effective. Further major capital expenditure would be necessary to solve the problem.

The hon. Gentleman may feel that we are adopting an unduly negative approach which will create problems for the harbour society and the fishermen based in Lybster. It may be that the society will have reluctantly to accept that the harbour is more suitable for small boats and larger boats should use the harbour at Wick, which is already used by certain boats based in Lybster. I recognise that they may be reluctant to do that but it may be that no alternative is available.

A second possibility is for the harbour society, with its engineering advisers, to re-examine the proposal to see whether it will be possible to effect a useful improvement to the harbour at less cost. We are not optimistic about that being likely to produce a useful conclusion but it may be worth considering. However, if it were possible, we would be prepared, without commitment, to reconsider the question of grant assistance within the financial constraints under which we must operate.

Mr. Maclennan

The development board has already considered that suggestion and shares the Minister's view that it is not likely to prove fruitful. Will the Minister undertake that his engineers will participate with the harbour society in such an examination?

Mr. Rifkind

If the society considered that a modest operation at less cost, although a second-best solution, would be worth proceeding with, we would do our best to give any co-operation towards assessing whether or not that is a realistic consideration.

A third possibility would be for the society to approach the Highland regional council about the possible transfer of the harbour to the council. I could not, however, predict the local authority reaction, since while the council has powers to acquire harbours, they, too, are under financial constraint, just as the Government are.

We seek in no way to minimise the problems that the condition of the pier will produce in the Lybster area. Unfortunately, we have limited funds available, and because of the small nature of the harbour it is difficult to justify the huge sums that would have to be considered. However, a new approach of a more modest nature will be given full con- sideration and we hope to be able to provide some form of help, if such an approach proves possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Two o'clock.